Jacob had left home after he had cheated his brother. His mother told him to get out of the way and look up his uncle. He has been walking all day, and night comes. He makes a bed for himself in the sands of the desert and settles down to sleep. He has a dream.
In the dream he sees a ladder stretching up to heaven and angels are going up and down. And then the Lord is standing beside him, promising that God will be with him will protect him, and will bring him back safely to this land, where his descendants will flourish.
Today, 29 September, is the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. And that gives us the opportunity to think about the place of angels in the Christian faith.
In the Bible, Angels come into the story when God is doing something new and people need a bit of direction and encouragement. They have a role when people need to see things in a new way, to adjust the way they perceive what is going on around them, and to find a new way of going forward. They also bring messages from God and warnings about the future.
In the story about Jacob’s ladder, the angels are a sign that heaven and earth are very close and that God is fully engaged with the lives of human beings.
In the Gospel story, when Jesus meets Nathanael, he tells him that he, Nathanael, will see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. It is clearly a reference to the story of Jacob. Jesus is saying that he is the ladder between heaven and earth. Once again, the reference to angels is a sign that something new is happening, that in Jesus we come close to God.
Four angels are named in the bible, and we call them archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. We know Gabriel the messenger from the story of Jesus’ birth. Raphael is the angel of healing and we hear about him in the story of Tobit – in this story too we hear how the angels bring the prayers of the people to Almighty God. Uriel means light or fire of God. It was believed that he stood at the gates of Eden when Adam and Eve were forced out.
But today we celebrate Michael, the chief of the angels, a warrior fighting evil in a cosmic battle and bringing the souls of the righteous to heaven. Jesus Christ has won the battle against sin and death on earth, and his champion Michael with all the angels mirrors this battle with Satan in heaven. It is all part of the same conflict.
Angels are there in the background of our faith. They are beings of light. When God wills it, we might encounter them directly. There are many stories of people who have been protected or guided by angels, or given a new direction. Jesus himself talks about Guardian Angels, our own helpers and protectors.
There are a lot of misunderstandings about angels. Angels are, surprisingly, very popular in secular life, but they tend to be sugar-coated, sentimental beings. Some people believe that when we die, we become angels, which is just not true. Angels are quite different from humans.
When I saw angels in 2008 in the church I was then working in, it was a time of great change for that church. It was a sign that God was with us and God would go with us into the next stage of our lives. It was an encouragement and a promise and a calling to do God’s work.
There is an old hymn – you don’t find it in modern hymnbooks – but I love the chorus.
Angels of Jesus, Angels of light,
Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night.
It’s a hymn about the angels encouraging us when our lives are dark. It says when things are tough, keep going, persevere – we are not alone.